Federal funds sought

Published 1:06 am Thursday, September 1, 2011

President Barack Obama has declared Beaufort County a federal disaster area, Gov. Beverly Perdue announced Wednesday.

The declaration means federal grants or low-interest loans for disaster recovery should become available to Beaufort County residents, said Jim Chrisman, interim county manager.

The county will provide a telephone number that people may use to contact officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Chrisman said. The telephone number wasn’t immediately available Wednesday.

“We’re very eager for that funding or that declaration to be announced in Beaufort County,” Chrisman said Tuesday.

Aid to local victims of Hurricane Irene is desperately needed, sources have told the Daily News.

On Monday, the Beaufort County Department of Social Services saw more than 1,000 people seeking food stamps, Chrisman said. On a normal day, no more than 240 people pass through the doors of the DSS building, he said.

Although the declaration came Wednesday, it wasn’t clear how quickly funds would become available.

“I think we’re actually ahead of schedule as compared to other natural disasters,” U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., said in an interview.

A Wilson resident, Butterfield represents part of Beaufort County in Congress.

FEMA has been in the east since the day before the storm hit, Butterfield said.

Federal money should begin flowing into the area soon, he said.

“I don’t want to say it’s today, but it’s imminent,” Butterfield added.

People will be advised to call FEMA first before doing an in-person visit to a local office. FEMA likely will establish a temporary local office in Washington in the coming days, as it has after past storms.

A FEMA assessment team, comprised of four or five people, came to Beaufort County Monday afternoon, Chrisman related. The team spent Monday and Tuesday traveling the county, documenting damage.

The team wasn’t here to identify damages to specific homes, but was trying to quantify the overall destruction to see if the county met the qualifications for a federal declaration, according to Chrisman.

Also declared disaster areas were Carteret, Craven, Dare, Hyde, Pamlico and Tyrrell counties, Perdue’s office said in a news release.

More counties may be added later.

“This important step will help residents in those counties pay for uninsured damages caused by Hurricane Irene,” the news release reads.

“I urged our federal partners to move quickly on this request for assistance, and they did,” Perdue said in the news release. “We’re grateful for that rapid response. Our fellow North Carolinians who suffered losses during this storm need to start rebuilding their lives now — not tomorrow.”

Obama issued what Perdue’s office called “a federal pre-landfall emergency declaration” last week before Hurricane Irene reached the East Coast.

That declaration allowed the state “to gain federal financial support for emergency protective measures such as the use of the N.C. National Guard, State Highway Patrol, N.C. Department of Transportation, as well as the opening (of) shelters and provide other resources as needed,” reads a previous news release from the governor’s office.

But the key federal disaster declaration should make grants and/or low-interest loans available to county residents and property owners, Chrisman pointed out.

In a Tuesday letter to the president, U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., offered his support for Perdue’s request “for an expedited major disaster declaration under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.”

The letter was sent by Jones, Butterfield and North Carolina’s two U.S. senators, Kay Hagan and Richard Burr.

A Farmville resident, Jones represents a portion of Beaufort County in Congress.

“Hurricane Irene’s widespread damage and property destruction affected thousands of North Carolinians and visitors in the state,” the letter reads. “Sadly, several North Carolinians lost their lives and dozens of families were displaced from their homes. We do not yet know the extent of the damage and destruction to homes and businesses, which will cost millions of dollars to rebuild and repair.”

On Tuesday, Guinn Leverett, town manager of Belhaven, said town officials hadn’t seen any FEMA officials. Belhaven was hard hit by Irene’s wind and flooding Saturday.

“FEMA’s not here,” Leverett said. “They haven’t been heard from.”